Like most university students beginning to discover their independence, Ibrahim Olabi does not tell his parents everything. When we met last year, he guided me to a short YouTube video. I quickly realized why he had kept one huge secret from his family. It showed shaky images he had taken of wire fences, dusty tracks and unidentifiable men sprinting frantically, before one is heard saying: “This is Syria. We’re in Syria.”
As more than 1.5 million people were escaping the violence, Ibrahim, who is studying law in the UK, was heading into Syria under the protection of the Free Syrian Army. It was a risky project for anyone—especially for this undergraduate, who holds a German passport, but whose family was linked to the Syrian opposition a generation ago.
Ibrahim’s mission was not about violence. He had no intention of picking up a gun. Instead, he would shoot with his camera and show the images to the world. That was twelve months ago and much has changed. It is no longer necessary to scramble into Syria under clandestine fences in remote areas. Mainstream media outlets are now making the documentaries Ibrahim planned to produce. So, Ibrahim felt his film was no longer needed and has altered his aspirations accordingly. His passion is Syria, but his expertise is in law—not filmmaking.
[inset_left]Ibrahim’s mission was not about violence. He had no intention of picking up a gun.
With fellow students and legal experts, Ibrahim has recently formed the Syrian Legal Development Programme. Unaffiliated with any other group and without any independent funding the small team of enthusiasts, armed only with their collective legal knowledge, are training non-state armed groups to understand the intricacies of international humanitarian law.
Also known as the law of armed conflict, international humanitarian law includes aspect of the Geneva and Hague Conventions along with numerous other international laws. Ibrahim explained to me that its beauty and practicality is its compatibility with Shari’a law, along with the potential protection it offers against claims of war crimes. The core team of lawyers, law students and translators—all from Syrian backgrounds or with a profound interest in the country—is ensuring that none of the numerous fighting factions is excluded from having the powerful tool of international law, working together with Shari’a law, at its fingertips.
The work being carried out by Ibrahim and his colleagues stands in positive contrast to widespread reports that some UK citizens are going to Syria to fight as jihadists. More extensive comments by the Quilliam Foundation, a British think tank, and others by some prominent Muslim British MPs have created the impression that Syria’s conflict is a magnet only to Al-Qaeda-inspired extremists.
Foreign fighters in twenty-first century conflicts are inevitable, but some assumptions regarding the extent of their presence in Syria are subverting the peaceful humanitarian efforts by committed individuals like Ibrahim. His team is also not the only organization providing training on international humanitarian law: the Red Cross and Amnesty offer something similar, but the Syrian Legal Development Programme is unique in that it is believed to be the only scheme of its kind operating inside Syria.
The SLDP has consulted with Amnesty and other international organizations in order to assess the nature and severity of the political and humanitarian situation. Aspects of the training they provide are intended to help any interested party become familiar with international law on issues such as the treatment of detainees, child soldiers, unlawful attacks and hostage-taking.
Ibrahim Olabi is still an undergraduate. He will return from his bases, one in Aleppo and another on the Turkish border, to the UK in September in order to complete his third year in law. As yet, he is undecided about his eventual field of practice, but his final year will undoubtedly include an aspect of international law.
Ibrahim’s focus has moved from a desire to increase worldwide awareness through his camera lens to a devoted plan to improving knowledge inside Syria, which will hopefully improve the chances of peace, protect innocent individuals from harm and speed the transition to a stable new administration.
His no longer keeps his work a secret from his parents. Ibrahim knows it would be impossible to easily explain his long absences, crackly telephone conversations and his increasingly high profile. His initial fears about their reaction seemed to be unfounded. “My parents are very appreciative,” he told me.
As the conflict in Syria evolves and transforms, so does worldwide opinion and analysis. The ubiquitous coverage and documentary films that many people have continued to make after Ibrahim chose a different path will eventually provide a series of historical accounts. Ibrahim Olabi and his colleagues in the Syrian Legal Development Programme are not jihadists, mercenaries, fighters or brigade members. As such, they may not generate huge news attention or hysteria.
In a nation that is in a state of flux, a thorough knowledge of international law is a stabilizing tool. So, when Ibrahim returns to Britain, he hopes his project will continue to help protect the citizens of a future Syrian nation that is, as yet, still emerging.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.